The question from the test:

We have to go. It is time we… – A. Leave, B. Are leaving, C. Left, D. Must leave.

The correct answer is C. Can you please explain why? What grammatical phenomenon is present in this sentence? (I thought that this sentence should include a subjunctive and so I chose the answer A.)

  • 1
    I have asked the same question before.Hopefully it helps ell.stackexchange.com/questions/38525/…
    – Mrt
    Commented Feb 8, 2015 at 18:16
  • 4
    ouch. That's one of those ones I know the answer instinctively, but cannot explain. As a Northern Brit I would have said "Went" ;) if there had been no multiple-choice, but presumably would have gone for the past tense reflexively. Commented Feb 8, 2015 at 18:20
  • IMO it's best to avoid this structure. sigh That ain't possible in exams.
    – M.A.R.
    Commented Feb 8, 2015 at 18:28
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    As a side note I don't think any native speaker would bat an eye at any of these in typical conversation.
    – Jim
    Commented Feb 8, 2015 at 19:44
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    Possible duplicate of "It's time ... 'verb'/'verb-ed' ..."
    – user24743
    Commented May 19, 2016 at 8:28

4 Answers 4


As far as my memory helps, this structure is used when we want to indicate that something needed to be done a while ago and we're a bit late.
Your hunch about the phrase after "we" being a subjunctive is correct. And, you can use both present and past tense. However, the present tense might give the audience a "shouting" connotation and thus, isn't frequent.

To be more precise, it's colloquial to have a "high" after "is":

It's high time I changed those socks!

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    One BBC page says that we use the non-past-tense (plain) verb form here only with infinitive clause constructions - " we can use the construction it's time to or it's time for + object + to as alternatives to the unreal use of past forms to express this idea" - so - "It's time for us to leave" Commented Feb 8, 2015 at 18:38
  • "Only" seems a bit, you know, not "buyable". Nothing is impossible in a language as wide as English! Though I completely agree with you in the part that it's best to substitute such structure with infinitives.
    – M.A.R.
    Commented Feb 8, 2015 at 18:43
  • Well, maybe there are other ways, the BBC page is not a CGEL (0: I wonder if it's called "subjunctive" in CGEL though. Commented Feb 8, 2015 at 18:47
  • Let's go checking.
    – M.A.R.
    Commented Feb 8, 2015 at 18:50
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    high is an intensifier that indicates that the lateness is more extreme. It can be used both ways (with and without high) depending on the amount of lateness the speaker wishes to indicate. I probably use it more without than with.
    – Jim
    Commented Feb 8, 2015 at 19:42

Can you please explain why?

There's an interesting afterthought in a Language Log post titled "It's time":

Some of the comments below ask about why the preterite would be used, and others correctly identify the reason: the preterite tense in English is often used for what is called "modal remoteness" — it takes us away from claiming something about the actual world.
If she knows where I am right now is about whether she knows in this world; if she knew where I am right now is about what it would be like in an alternate world, unlike this one, a world in which she does know.

P.S. "preterite" - past tense form of the verb

  • Instead of calling this past tense "past tense of modal remoteness" one should simply say it is past subjunctive. And "It's time we went* (went* means past subjunctive) actually means "It would be time we went". Why the formula is twisted and we say "it's time" (present tense) is another question.
    – rogermue
    Commented Feb 9, 2015 at 3:54
  • While the CaGEL is superb, their description of modal-remoteness is shockingly poor :( Boo to modal remoteness! Commented Feb 9, 2015 at 9:21
  • @Araucaria - I'm not enough of a boffin to root for either of the two concepts with vigour. So far, these are only labels to me. We have a saying "you can label me a kettle if you like to, just don't put me in the oven" (хоть горшком назови, только в печку не ставь). But I like unified terminology. Maybe it's time I read some Quirk and CGEL on the issue. (0: Commented Feb 9, 2015 at 9:26

A and C are both correct. Letter A uses the present subjunctive and letter C uses the past subjunctive. It really is a matter of choice in English. Here are two examples:

"It's time I be made a partner." "It's time I were made a partner."

Both of these mean the same thing. I know your ESL teacher wants the past subjunctive "left" used above and not the present subjunctive "leave", so he might frown on my first example; however, both are correct in my examples and both A and C are correct in your situation, whether your ESL teacher "believe" it or not (present subjunctive). There are a few times in English wherein the present and past subjunctive forms can be used interchangeably; this is one of them. The second example using "were" or your example using "left" may give off a hint that it is more unlikely to happen than it would be if the present subjunctive were used therein, but it really is preference.

Other examples of present and past subjunctive interchangeability: "I would rather he be in agreement." "I would rather he were in agreement."


I believe that we can find this pattern (or structure), It's time, in most grammar books. Here is what Practical English Usage by Michael Swan writes about it:

306 it's time
1 followed by infinitive
​  [...]
2 followed by past tense with present meaning
​  It's time can also be followed by a subject with a past tense verb. The meaning is present.
​  It's time she went to bed.
​  It's time you washed those trousers.
​  I'm getting tired. It's time we went home.
The expression It's high time ... is often used in this structure in British English, to say that something is urgent.
​  It's high time you got a job.

I hope this is helpful.

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